Cross gender casting in theatre: the facts (as I made them up)

Forbes Masson as Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. Photo Simon Annand

Forbes Masson as Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. Photo Simon Annand

There has been media discussion lately about cross gender casting, mainly because high profile actresses talked about their desire to play male roles. This is surprising to me. The fact this kind of statement generates headlines that is, not the desire itself. Why would you be an actor and not want to play everything? And equally, why is suspension of disbelief perceived as problematic when it involves gender?

So I decided to think through some of the joys and challenges of cross gender casting. I did almost no research, so feel free to dispute any of my statements and I am sure everyone’s examples will be richer than mine.

1) Some of the discussion is tied with gender inequality and the small number of female roles in classical theatre. While this is true (and inequality isn’t always addressed in modern theatre either), is that poor justification for what is an artistic decision? Truth is, cross gender casting is far more exciting than that and can jolt the imagination in interesting directions, including – but not limited to – plays where gender politics have a central role. The recent The Taming of the Shrew at the Royal Shakespeare Company – with men playing women and women playing men – and The Shed’s Blurred Lines – with its all female cast playing all roles – are good examples. Continue reading

Martin Crimp talks about the audience walking out In The Republic of Happiness

Back in December, I made no secret how much I disliked Martin Crimp’s In The Republic of Happiness. It was unrelentlessly boring, further more its central theme – the myopic indulgence of the middle classes – is at least five years behind the times. Until 2008, the middle classes thought the world was their oyster, happiness, success, security their entitlement. After 2008, the main story is fear. Entitlement is still wedged in the consciousness of the middle classes, yet it doesn’t match reality. Casual cruelty, confusion, shame drive the narrative.

A few days ago, Martin Crimp was interviewed at Front Row by Mark Lawson, a propos of his opera Written on Skin playing at the Royal Opera House. The conversation turned to In The Republic of Happiness, and here is what Martin Crimp said about members of the audience walking out in the middle of the performance. Continue reading

What does it take to advertise the arts? And does theatre have an image problem?

Ballet as you have never seen it before.

Ballet as you have never seen it before.

I still like print papers. I like to see the article position in a page, the space it takes, the section it appears, the print ads that surround it. It’s not unusual for this ecosystem to throw unexpected partnerships and hidden meanings.  As it happens (and to the surprise of no one), I spend much of my time in the Culture sections of the weekend papers. And inevitably, I pay attention to the ads.

Last weekend I noticed a great new advertising campaign by the English National Ballet. It doesn’t advertise a specific production, but it aims to shake preconceptions about ballet itself (uptight people in tutus). It shows the company at its disheveled decadent best. Open shirts, untied bow ties, beautiful bodies draped over furniture, a hotbed of sensuality. The theatre establishmet should take note: theatre, similarly to ballet, has an image problem. Stuffiness and boredom are often mentioned when the conversation turns to plays, and funding problems won’t be solved until this image changes. Continue reading

In Praise of Bad Productions (or what I learned from watching Damned by Despair)

There is a storm brewing in the air. I haven’t got around to writing my own review of Damned by Despair yet (Update: you can find my full review here), but it’s obvious it provokes extreme reactions: revstan liked it a lot, but there are ramblings on twitter by people who hated it with passion and commitment. One particularly militant theatregoer has written an open letter to Nic Hytner to withdraw the production “for the sake of the reputation of the National Theatre and and any compassion you have for the unfortunate actors taking part in it” (posted at the National Theatre facebook page). Continue reading

Twelfth Night and This House, press nights that didn’t happen make it to print

Stephen Fry as Malvolio. Photo Simon Annand

Press nights often create the headlines (after all you need a press night in order to have press reviews. Or do you? More about this later), but in the past week press nights ARE in the headlines: Twelfth Night started previews at the Globe, or more accurately started its Globe performances that function as a preview run before the official opening at the Apollo Theatre in November. None of the Globe performances are for the press and the expectation was, at least on the part of the producers, that the production will be reviewed for the first time at the Apollo. It didn’t quite work out that way: the Telegraph prominently run a review under the headline “Stephen Fry in Twelfth Night – First Review” and the Times followed suit a few days later. Both five star reviews I might add, but the producers are not happy: they protest these reviews break the embargo. I can’t help but feel it is a token effort whose main purpose is to prevent a precedent. With Mark Rylance playing Olivia  and, especially, Stephen Fry playing Malvolio, did they really believe the press would sit on their hands till November? But I wonder how critics from other papers feel. They have every reason to be unhappy as they played by the rules and punished for it.

On the other hand, the Guardian plays a different game these days: it encourages readers to use its own twitter hashtag #GdnReview, and between this and comments on its blogs, it published the readers views of the production. I am ambivalent about the prominent way the Guardian uses the public’s comments: there is a fine line between encouraging dialogue and encouraging people to give you content for free. As these are difficult and confusing days for the press, there is no easy answer. Continue reading

Theatre aesthetics in a digital world

Getting straight to the point, why are many theatre sites so appalling to look at? Organisations, like the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company, have sites that are visually fine (although often too fiddly for the users) and theatre blogs, naturally, span a huge range, but theatre news outlets, like Whatsonstage, Playbill and Broadwayworld, are consistent in their aesthetic: garish, loud, like being screamed at by an old lady while repeatedly hit over the head. If you get past that assault, there is a lot of interesting content, but I still feel I am in the wrong place: normally I wouldn’t be caught dead in a place as naff as that. Continue reading

Shakespeare: is it good for you?

Ben Whishaw as Richard II, directed by Rupert Goold

There is Shakespeare on TV tonight. The good news is there has been plenty of coverage and it’s very very good. The bad news is the press, as always, behave like Shakespeare is something to endure. Undoubtedly good for you, but mildly unpleasant.

Sam Wollaston, in his review of Julius Caesar at the Guardian earlier this week, writes: “I’ve never had the easiest relationship with the Bard. Even now, aged however old I am, I find it hard not to associate him more with homework than with a good time.” Continue reading